'This is Bemidji's team'; New IFL team to start play in February (with video)
BEMIDJI -- Bemidji's first professional sports franchise will have plenty of local flavor.
The city's yet-to-be-named Indoor Football League team was officially introduced to the community Wednesday at the Sanford Center. The team will begin play in February.
"I may be from out of town, but don't get it wrong, this is Bemidji's team," co-owner and president Chris Kokalis said. "We want to make sure the community is involved in all aspects."
Kokalis, who is also the co-owner and general manager of the IFL's Cedar Rapids Titans,will be working with Bemidji resident Ross Ladehoff, who is the team's other co-owner. Ladehoff said he found out about the IFL at the same time as everyone else -- when Kokalis visited the Sanford Center in July to gauge community interest.
"I watched the press conference when Chris was here the first time and got really excited about it," Ladehoff said. "I did some research on my end and saw it was a pretty good product in a growing market. I saw a chance to bring it to Bemidji and make it Bemidji's team."
Ladehoff, a Bemidji State graduate, said he's a huge BSU hockey fan and wanted to bring that energy to football.
"I'm a big hockey fan, so coming here and seeing this building erupt kinda gets your skin tingling," he said. "I want to bring that feeling to football. I believe this is a great community for football."
Kokalis and Ladehoff said they weren't actively looking for other investors but noted if someone was interested, they would sit and listen.
" I don't think we're going to be knocking on any doors," Ladehoff said. "If there's interest present, we'd love to meet some people. It's a great conversation to have with people. But I think we're set right now to go forward."
The team will begin play in February and will have eight home games -- one exhibition contest and seven regular-season games. Kokalis said the schedule would be released in October.
The Bemidji franchise joins nine other teams in the six-year-old IFL. The league's primary focus is in the Midwest, including cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sioux Falls, S.D., Green Bay, Wis., Grand Island, Neb., and Chicago, but there are also teams in Texas, Wyoming and Washington.
Bemidji will be the smallest city in the league but as Kokalis has noted before, he thinks Bemidji's status as a regional center for Northern Minnesota means a bigger opportunity.
"I don't view Bemidji as a town of 15,000 people," Kokalis said. "I view it as a central location for northern Minnesota. Hopefully we'll be able to provide tourism opportunities to get people to come into Bemidji for games."
He said those Midwestern cities -- in Cedar Rapids, Grand Island and Sioux Falls -- average about 4,000 fans a game.
"With the success Bemidji State has had with the hockey program here, along with other events that they've had here at the Sanford Center, we don't anticipate any issues with getting those types of numbers," he said.
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, who also spoke at the press conference, said an IFL team only cements Bemidji's status within the region. She was excited that having a team here will possibly keep locals who want opportunities in professional sports to stay in town.
"That just points to the fact that Bemidji is a great regional center," Albright said. "And it's an opportunity, not just for this facility to have an additional exposure across the country, but also for people in the northern Minnesota area who really want to get involved with football.
"We can keep them here, and we don't have to send them away to some other large metro city. So, that's a positive."
Kokalis will split his time between Bemidji and Cedar Rapids but said the team will have permanent staff with offices in the Sanford Center.
The franchise will begin its name-the-team contest starting Saturday in conjunction with the Pioneer. Fans are encouraged to submit team names and team colors to the Pioneer, which will start running entry forms in the newspaper on Saturday. Officials plan to announce the team's name and colors Sept. 4.
A website -- www.bemidjiprofootball.com -- has also been set up and season tickets were already for sale Wednesday.
Ladehoff said he and Kokalis had already been in discussion with potential head coaching candidates, and a player try-out is scheduled for early October.